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Call of the nagaswaram

Suganthy Krishnamachari
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Personality Seshampatti Sivalingam had no family backing or lineage to propel him. He went beyond these to find his niche. Suganthy Krishnamachari

Maestro: Seshampatti Sivalingam.Photo: K.V.Srinivasan
Maestro: Seshampatti Sivalingam.Photo: K.V.Srinivasan

One may contemptuously refer to small amounts of money as “peanuts!” But to Seshampatti Sivalingam, it is not pejorative, as it helped him in a way to get to where he is.

Growing up in Seshampatti, a village in Dharmapuri district, Sivalingam learnt to play the nagaswaram from his father Teerthagiri. The family was engaged in agriculture and Sivalingam would toil in the fields during the day and learn music at night. “My father was not a famous vidwan,” says Sivalingam modestly. “But he supplemented the family income by playing the nagaswaram at temple festivals.”

One day, nagaswara vidwan Tiruvenkadu Masilamani, who heard Sivalingam play at a temple, told Teerthagiri that Thanjavur with its music tradition was the place for his son. But Teerthagiri turned down the idea because of financial reasons.

Sivalingam took matters into his own hands. He helped himself to Rs. 80 from the money his father made by selling the peanuts cultivated on his land and ran away from home. He took a train to Sirkazhi, from there a bus to Tiruvenkadu and landed at Masilamani's doorstep. He was 16 years old then!

Amazed by the boy's pluck, Masilamani took him to nagaswara vidwan Keevaloor N.G. Ganesan. “At Nagapattinam, I saw a beach for the first time,” says Sivalingam. In fact the Cauvery, the fertile land and the sea that presented a picture of beauty, frightened Sivalingam who had never seen anything like this in arid Dharmapuri. He even toyed with the idea of returning home, but his love for music overcame his fear.

After some months, Ganesan took him to Veerusami Pillai, who gave the boy a letter of recommendation to the Government Music College in Madras. But Sivalingam, who wanted to study in the Thiruvaiyaru College, turned down the offer and an angry Veeruchami Pillai tore up the letter. Later that night, Keevalur Govindaraja Pillai, who played the mridangam and tavil, scolded Sivalingam for missing such an opportunity. So the next day, he went back to Veerusami Pillai, who told him that he would not give him another letter, even if he begged for one.

Madras opened doors

A chance to study in Madras came later, through Sivalingam's friend Sikkil Umapathy, who was already at the Music College. Sivalingam enrolled for the Vadhya Visharadha course and Keeranur Ramaswami Pillai was his teacher. “There used to be a keerai thottam on St. Mary's Road, in the middle of which were 25 huts. My friend and I shared one hut. The rent was one and half rupees a month. A meal in a nearby mess cost six annas!” he recalls.

Madras opened up many opportunities and Sivalingam played in many temples in the area, including the Kesava Perumal temple in Mylapore. The money he earned, though not much, came in handy to meet expenses.

Since Ramaswami Pillai lived on St. Mary's Road, it was easy for the boys to go to his house for lessons after college. “He was very strict. While he bathed, he would tell us to practise on the first floor of his house. One day, I played a film song and he came running upstairs, wrapped in a towel and dripping. He shouted at me and reminded me of his musical lineage. He told me never to play a film song in his house again!”

“He expected perfection from his students. I remember he taught ‘Chetulara Sringaramu' for four months,” says Sivalingam. “He would tell us to practise in front of a mirror. He would insist that we play with our eyes open so that we could see the audience's reaction.”

Once, long after Sivalingam had become an established artist, he forgot his guru's instructions and it was on a live TV programme! Six instrumentalists were to play one after another. Jalatarangam artist Seetha Doraiswamy was to play after Sivalingam. Launching into a grand Thodi, Sivalingam played with eyes closed lost in the music. The staff at the studio signalled frantically to him to stop when his time was up, but he was oblivious to it. “Because of this, the time available to Seetha amma was reduced and I felt very bad. That experience taught me a lesson Ramaswami Pillai also used to regale his students with stories about nagaswaram legends. “My guru used to say that there was such perfect synchronisation between Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers, they even inhaled and exhaled at the same time.”

Thorough with sahitya

Sivalingam is thorough with the sahitya of the kritis he plays, for his guru used to make sure that his students sang a kriti properly, before they played it on the nagaswaram.

Later Sivalingam took lessons from Latchappa Pillai, with a Central Govenrment scholarship. “I've also learnt many kritis from KVN. Once I played ‘Sri Mahaganapathim Bhajeham' (Atana) on the radio. I'd learnt that kriti from S. Kalyanaraman. He came home and told me that he cried when he listened to my rendering of the kriti.”

Sivalingam plays for four hours everyday, and even takes his nagaswaram with him when he visits his son in the U.S. Once he played it at his son's residence in Chicago and the neighbours complained about the noise.

There have been many memorable occasions for him. “MS was scheduled to sing after me at G.K. Vasan's wedding, but when I wound up, she said, ‘You play very well. Why don't you play for some more time?' At the World Tamil Conference in Madurai, I was told to play until Chief Minister MGR arrived. But MGR said, ‘I want to hear you play. Please don't stop.' At a wedding, Former President of India, Abdul Kalam, asked me to play ‘Entharo Mahanubhavulu'. At my request, he even posed for a photograph with me.”

Author Sujatha once reluctantly attended a wedding, at the behest of his wife. But when he heard Sivalingam play, he said he was glad he had come. In the next issue of Kumudam , he carried a brief write-up on Sivalingam's playing with his photograph.

Sivalingam had embarked on his career with no family name to propel him, no music lineage, no family encouragement and not much inherited wealth. He didn't even grow up in a district famous for music. But he went beyond all these and found his niche in the world of music. And that is reason enough to be proud.

Sivalingam has been an ‘A' grade AIR artist for close to 40 years and has been a top artist for the past four years. He has won many titles and awards such as Kalaimamani, Sangeetha Kala Siromani, Papanasam Sivan award, Sangeetha Seva Niarata, and has been chosen for the Sangeet Natak Akademi award this year. He is an empanelled artist of ICCR.

Ramaswami Pillai would insist that we play with our eyes open so that we could see the audience's reaction.

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